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Chivas Regal I Rise, We Rise: Shirmy Chan of Bar TERUMI shares a slice of wisdom for women bartenders everywhere

In conjunction with International Women’s Day, Lifestyle Asia KL and Chivas Regal join forces with four illustrious female bartenders in town. We sit with Shirmy Chan, mixologist veteran and the mind behind Bar TERUMI, and discuss her journey opening her own bar; what it’s like to lead an all-female team; and how the tables have turned for women in the bar scene over the years.

Together with Lifestyle Asia KL, Chivas Regal celebrates International Women’s Day with the country’s most celebrated female bartenders. Mark your calendars on 8th March 2023 for a special Guest Shift at BAR TERUMI, featuring Caden Chua and Shirmy Chan from BAR TERUMI; Maria Escobia from Penrose KL; and Megan Lim from BAC. Find out more HERE.

“I always tell my bartenders that skill and technique are what you need to perform — those are occupational needs,” Shirmy Chan confides as we find ourselves settling into the seating area at TERUMI which resembles a Japanese tea room, separated from the main bar area. “But what really drives you to go further in bartending is the spirit.” In the self-contained space with its low tables, potted plants, neatly lined pebble path, and ripple lighting overhead, it feels as though I have just received a priceless piece of wisdom from a zen master.

TERUMI (or “the tender bar” as it is aptly dubbed) is something of a sanctuary nestled in the buzzing neighbourhood of Taman Paramount, and is Shirmy’s pride and joy. She calls it ‘harmonious’ — a word that indeed comes to mind when entering the bar. There’s a perfect balance of modern and traditional; sophisticated and homey. At once, TERUMI stands out to me with its floor-to-ceiling windows — a rarity for ‘hidden’ bars. The afternoon brings with it a downpour, and it lends the space an unexpected tenderness.

“I get a lot of comments saying, ‘Wah, your bar doesn’t look like a bar, it’s so chill.’” Shirmy grins, clearly pleased. “I made sure to have a lot of windows so that there’s light coming in. Actually, I got fed up working in bars that are always dark and feel cramped. You’re disconnected from people, from the outside world. And I didn’t want that for TERUMI.”

Part of why Shirmy chose to set up shop in Taman Paramount is the people and the lifestyle. Hailing from the coastal town of Pantai Remis, Perak, Shirmy admits she is drawn to wherever old and new cultures blend in harmony. The old adage ‘home is where the heart is’ rings truer than ever here. “People used to question, ‘Why don’t you go overseas, maybe Singapore?’” she recounts. “But I love it here. I told myself that if my end goal is to open a bar, it has to be in Malaysia. If I go somewhere else and come back, I would feel disconnected. I wouldn’t be true to myself and my dream anymore.”

A little trivia: TERUMI (whose name is a blend of the characters “辉 teru” meaning ‘to shine’ and “美 mi”, which means ‘beauty’) is more than just an ode to light. “Consider this a tribute to a father from his daughter,” Shirmy adds. Her father’s name in kanji, as chance would have it, is also “teru” and “mi”. Observing her demeanour, it is clear that Shirmy is the ‘been-there-done-that’ kind of person with a lot of wisdom to impart onto anyone who finds themselves in the same bandwidth. And for the 36-year-old, she has so much more to offer. 

At the very least, she extends her hospitality in the form of a drink from TERUMI’s all-encompassing cocktail menu. With gin-based Hakanai and citrus bourbon Majime hailed as its signature drinks — the menu has a profound Japanese-inspired bent, a nice touch to the bar’s all-round zen energy. The rain outside, almost in tune with the calmness of the bar, sets the perfect afternoon for a pick-me-up drink. Shirmy folds her sleeves, effortlessly fixes us up with a comfort sipper: whisky sour, courtesy of Chivas Regal.

Making the leap from bartender to bar owner (in a man’s, man’s, man’s world)

Sitting on the cusp of two different generations, Shirmy has long observed the ins and outs of the local bar scene. And with multiple awards under her belt (her most recent being ‘Bartender of the Year KL’ just before the pandemic) it’s pretty unlikely that KLites haven’t had a Shirmy Chan cocktail. Shirmy began her career in food service at Shangri-La KL back in 2009, but her first foray into bartending didn’t officially start until she met Amanda Wan, fellow award-winning bartender whom Shirmy dubs as her ‘mentor’.

“That was how I got to know some of the professional bartenders — it was like a circle, this group of people — and Amanda taught me the basic skills of bartending; that got me interested in pursuing this path,” she offers. But it would be a while before Shirmy ventured out of the hotelier life. In 2010, she manned the SkyBar at Traders Hotel KL. “Back then, it was rare for a woman to be a bartender. I mean, I would say this is a very traditional mindset — that only men are capable of working behind the stick. But I could also understand why, because at the time it was required for you to be physically strong. It wasn’t just pouring bottles and crafting cocktails. You had to carry barrels and crates of beer, push around a lot of heavy stuff. Plus, it was more like a nightclub so they preferred women to be out at the front, entertaining customers.”

When Shirmy got her first bartending job at Omakase + Appreciate in 2013 — thanks to KL cocktail bar pioneers, Shawn Chong and Karl Too — her own dream manifested, and she began the arduous work of planning her entire life. She was in it for the long haul.

“I was twenty-four or twenty-five,” Shirmy muses, “and I thought, ‘Okay, I think this is not going to be an easy journey, to achieve success or even to be someone.’ So, I set a timeline for myself. If by the time I was thirty I was still a ‘nobody’, then it was time for me to quit and try something else. It was like ‘do-or-die’ for me.” She laughs, and the seriousness in her voice is shed. “Sometimes we bartenders struggle to continue because it’s really not an easy job, especially for women. Once we’re sure that this is what we want to do, we need to keep searching for what’s good for us. I’ll put it this way: I believe most bartenders, one way or another, wish to have their own bar. I think that’s a small dream we share, like a seed planted in all of us.”

For all her dreaming and purposeful longing, Shirmy is a realist. By the time she did turn thirty, she had already worked her way up to become Bar Manager at 61Monarchy — a hidden speakeasy that specialises in whisky — and brushed up on her marketing skills. She wanted to make a name for herself. It’s clear that since her first taste of bartending, Shirmy had embarked on a quest and was determined to see it through. Call it ‘right place, right time’; circumstances gave her a push.

“I think if there was no COVID-19, I would still be at 61Monarchy,” Shirmy admits. “Because at the time I couldn’t figure out what was ‘next’ for me. But then after all that happened, I made a decision to quit. It gave me an opportunity to really think. I was no longer working for people, so what did I need to do? It’s like I suddenly had a lot of free time to myself, not just to think but also to plan it all out. Then by August 2022… well, here we are!”

“Skill and technique are what you need to perform — those are occupational needs. But what really drives you to go further in bartending is the spirit.” —Shirmy Chan

What Shirmy Chan talks about when she talks about bartending

When she says that ‘spirit’ is what drives you in bartending, Shirmy is referring to the mindset. Bartending goes far beyond the beverage — it’s in the body language and the attitude.

“It’s all about the people,” she goes on. “Just imagine: at times when I feel really down, you know, frustrated when I have a lot of obstacles at work, I notice that my regular customers from when I first started bartending are showing up at my bar. It’s like, ‘You’re still following me after all this time? Oh, you are not just a customer anymore.’ They might have started as my customers, but now we’re all friends. I have started to build my own community. Only then I realised that is the true meaning of bartending. It’s really about the people.”

As we talk about her affinity with people, I bring up her bartenders. Shirmy lets out a droll, “Hah!” when I point out that TERUMI comprises an all-woman team. “It just happened to be that way,” she explains. “In this case, it’s not so much about the work but the environment. We used to work in a very male-dominant industry, so sometimes we might not feel comfortable having to blend into an all-male environment. But carrying out a conversation with the customers, male or female, is different. That for me is my comfort zone.” Just recently, TERUMI gained a male junior bartender, shattering that ‘all-female’ perception the bar had held. But Shirmy is a leader who looks past gender politics. “It’s funny,” she adds, “when our junior bartender first joined, he also struggled to blend into our all-female environment. I think it’s about finding our own way to adapt. When the same thing happened for us back then, it was tough but we still survived. Adapting is a survival skill.”

TERUMI’s bartending team also includes Caden Chua, dubbed ‘The Rising Star’ at The Bar Awards in 2018, and an alumnus of Coley cocktail bar. Presently, Caden is unscrewing a bottle of Chivas Regal behind the bar at the other end of the space, preparing one of the house signatures. As I try to probe further into Shirmy’s style of running the bar, she laughs, saying, “You can ask Caden. I’m sure Caden will be able to tell you more about my leadership style.”

Shirmy has also been taking care of creating TERUMI’s team of bartenders. In a booming bar scene where growing talent is unlimited and everybody knows everybody, there is an art to the selection process. “Caden has been in the industry for some time, almost the same number of years as me,” Shirmy says. “But she was always ‘in the shadows’ and a little bit shy. I’ve been through all that, so I understand certain things happen in these given situations. I think it was more that I wanted to help her — this was how I recruited most of my staff. It was mostly talking to them, helping them to gain more confidence and continue on in their journey.”

One astute observation Shirmy makes of the latest generation is that bartending has become less a lifelong career and more a field one would like to dip their toe into — though compared to back then, it is no longer seen as ‘less-than’. With the industry constantly evolving, the emphasis is put on the lifestyle aspect of bartending.

“We’re living in an era where people have their day job, but they also have more flexible time,” Shirmy notes. “So, they’re willing to try something else, you know? Their job is for them to make a living, but they also have spare time to take up something else. That’s why I would say that some people are really good at taking up bartending as a secondary profession. I think it’s that way with almost any profession now.”

Shirmy’s go-to cocktail is a dry martini, though if you asked five years ago, she’d give you a different answer. “I learned a word to describe my drink — someone used it to describe my style, which is ‘harmony’,” she says, echoing the sentiment she’d given her own bar. “From the moment you first drink it to the end, it’s smooth and easy to sip on.” Her choice of food is a cold dish or serving of seafood — oyster or scallops — to pair perfectly with the martini.

“I like food, and I like cooking. But I ended up becoming a bartender because it was more challenging… or maybe I just didn’t want to be a chef who only stays inside the kitchen,” she says with another laugh. “It was very rare to have an open kitchen back then. I think what I always wanted, ultimately, is a chance to connect with my customers.”

While Shirmy may have climbed her way up to the level of success that many bartenders around her dream to achieve, she is still geared up to take on even more challenges that come her way. It’s all uphill from here, but knowing her quiet perseverance and unrelenting spirit that have taken her where she is now, there is no doubt Shirmy’s only going to keep thriving in the industry.

To get your hands on your own bottle of Chivas Regal, head over to its official Shopee page HERE.

editor & creative direction MARTIN TEO | assisted by RONN TAN | production NEW STORYBOARDS PHOTOGRAPHY | location BAR TERUMI
Chivas Regal I Rise, We Rise: Shirmy Chan of Bar TERUMI shares a slice of wisdom for women bartenders everywhere

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